Nursing unions in plea for rights of 'vital' EU nationals working for NHS
Nursing unions have urged the British government to secure the rights of EU nationals working in the NHS, amid warnings that the service faces an unprecedented staffing crisis.
A "vital part" of the health and social care system could be lost if EU workers are made to feel unwelcome after Brexit, representative bodies have cautioned.
This follows figures out last month which showed the number of EU nationals joining the NHS in England fell by almost a sixth since the Brexit vote.
Some 12,751 doctors, nurses and other staff were recruited to NHS services across England in the year to June 2017 - down from 15,476 (17%) in the previous 12 months.
EU citizens make up around 6% of all NHS hospital and community staff in England, but the proportion is higher for nurses and health visitors (8%), and doctors (10%).
But Janet Davies, chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), said the health service "cannot afford" to lose nurses from the continent.
She added: "EU nurses are a vital part of the UK's health and social care system but less and less of them are registering to work in the NHS since Brexit.
"With 40,000 nursing vacancies in England alone after years of poor workforce planning, we cannot afford to lose EU nurses too.
"The government must make it clear that EU nationals are welcome and valued during Brexit negotiations, otherwise it risks turning off the supply of qualified nurses from across Europe."
Overall, figures showed a greater number of people from the EU joining the NHS than leaving.
Nearly 10,000 EU nationals have also left the service since the vote to leave last June - up more than a fifth (22%) on the previous year.
Unison head of health Sara Gorton said it was essential that the government "grant the right to stay" for EU nationals "on whom the NHS has become so reliant".
She told the Press Association: "It's no wonder numbers have taken such a dive. Much of the political rhetoric since Brexit has made European citizens feel decidedly unwelcome.
"People want to know they and their families have a future here, but there is still much uncertainty - despite recent remarks from the Prime Minister.
"The promise of a lengthy wait and an equally long paper trail for those who want to apply to remain is hardly an encouragement to stay.
"Removing the training bursary and tough new language tests are also deterring many UK and international health workers from entering the English nursing profession."
A Department of Health spokeswoman said: "Overseas workers play a crucial role in our NHS and we want to see their excellent work continue long after the UK leaves the European Union.
"There are now almost 61,900 EU nationals working in the NHS, which is 3,193 more than in June 2016."